A League Truly Their Own!

Originally posted 9/28/11

I sincerely thank everyone who took part in this blog and I thank all players for doing what you do all summer. You put a high quality product on the field and make it so relative to us as fans. I came into this project with a favorite player, now I have many! Rich Harland

The Bandits celebrate after winning the NPFCSPhoto by Dina Kwit

The Bandits celebrate after winning the NPFCSPhoto by Dina Kwit

      On August 21st, 2011 the National Pro Fastpitch League wrapped up their seventh season with what may have been a surprise to some, the Chicago Bandits sweeping the 3 game series with the USSSA Pride in Sulpher, LA. Although the Bandits are no stranger to success, it was no secret that the Pride were favored after dominating the NPF regular season. The victory give the Bandits their second Cowles Cup, which is named after Jane Cowles, the founder of the previous Women’s Professional Softball League. With this win, along with their triumph over the Washington Glory in the 2008 NPFCS, the Bandits become the first NPF team with multiple championships. The victory was in large part due to MVP and one of the faces of the League, Monica Abbott. Monica is no stranger to this type of accomplishment, she also was named MVP for the 2007 Champions Washington Glory. She was also 2011 NPF co-Pitcher of the Year along with Cat Osterman. Monica lives life under the slogan “Live2BringIt” I’d say she did that beyond on a shadow of a doubt throughout her marathon weekend with 3 wins, 30 strikeouts, 2.17 ERA and 29 innings.

     She also had some superb offensive support and timely hitting. Nikki Nemitz hit 4-10 with a home run and 6 RBI’s. Tammy Williams went 5-14 with 2 homers and 4 RBI’s. While the veterans did their part the most noteable contribution in the final may have been from rookie OF Megan Wiggins. Merely months removed from finishing her stellar career at the University of Georgia (49th all-time in D1, 203 RBI) Megan put together a rookie performance in the likes of a young Magic Johnson in Game 6 of the 1980 NBA Finals. With the bases loaded and her team down 2-0 in the 5th inning of Game 1 of the best-of-three series; Megan steps up dispite having struck out two times previously in the game, belts a bases clearing double to propel the Bandits to the 3-2 win. Megan finished the decisive game going 2-3 with a homer and a triple that ignited a 5-run first inning. 

Megan Wiggins with her smooth lefty strokePhoto by Dina Kwit

     “Honestly, I love those kind of situations, but I never thought of myself as a rookie. Our team did a very good job of blending everyone on the team and not specifying each other as a rookie or not.”, Wiggins says about being in such a big moment as a rookie, “I came to LA knowing I was going to have to step up my game, because individually I knew I was struggling and for my team I promised myself that I would consciously do better offensively and defensively. Like I said at first, I have prepared and trained for those situations for a long time now, and I also mentally prepare myself for them as well. Positive thinking leads to positive results, the mind does what you tell it to.”

     This type of performance should not come as a surprise to anyone familiar with the NPF or college softball. Wiggins, along with her Bandits and UGA teammate Alisa Goler, took the league by storm. Goler, the 2011 NPF Rookie of the Year, ended her college career 15th all-time with 236 RBI’s and 19th with 58 homers, also a 2-time all-WCWS first teamer. These ladies give all young players the confidence they need to enter the NPF and contribute immediately. Megan and Alisa, along with fellow NPF players Taylor Schlopy, Bri Hesson, and Kristin Schnake, led the Bulldogs to their first ever WCWS in 2009 and also returned in 2010, placing 3rd both times. The transition from college to professional proved pretty smooth for Alisa and Megan. Not only were they 1st and 2nd on their team in most major catagories, (hits, runs, HR, RBI) they both also finished in the top 5 in the entire NPF. Alisa credits her teammates for making her pretty comfortable, “Luckily, my teammates never made me feel like a rookie, they always treated me as an equal and it took a lot of pressure off of me.”

Georgia and Bandit teammatesAlisa Goler and Megan WigginsPhoto by Dina Kwit

     Both ladies explained to me how it felt being winning the title this year. “It’s a dream come true. I’ve been working my whole life to acheive something as great as this. I have never won a big-time championship since I’ve been playing softball, which is I was four. So it feels amazing.” explains Megan, “I’m all about the phrase ‘hard work pays off’ and I know that anyone that was a part of the 2011 Chicago Bandits will tell you that we worked hard, mentally and physically.” Alisa simply said,  “it feels AWESOME!”, she also likes the idea of adding a ring to her jewelry collection.

*****

     I guess to really get the message across that I want to about the NPF in this blog I should give an explanation as to why I am doing it. It was really a coincidence that I even knew the NPF existed. The Akron Racers have played in the NPF since 2004 and I never once knew it. Back in 2006 while I was watching Barry Bonds chase Babe Ruth for all-time homeruns on ESPN I flipped to ESPN2 during a commercial. What I found was Arizona playing in the Women’s College World Series, it was so much more exciting and intense then baseball, needless to say I never went back to the baseball game. Since it was the cool thing to do I added some of my favorite players on Facebook and never had any contact with them ever, until this year. I saw a post from Caitlin Lowe about playing in Akron and it caught my eye. I did some research and low and behold their was a professional softball league and they had a team in Akron. It’s most definitely ironic how I found out about it, but I am so glad I did. I messaged Caitlin saying I was going to bring my niece and check it out, she responded with a very welcoming message.

Cat Osterman and myself

     My first game was July 1, the Racers played the the Pride. Cat Osterman and Kristina Thorson battled all day long with Kristina getting the win for the Racers. It was such an enjoyable experience I went back that Sunday. I left that evening so impressed and a huge fan of the NPF! There were just so many things that stuck out to me that the league represents- that people love and are appreciative of. The biggest thing that stood out was the energy in the game from the first pitch to the last. There were no players not running out a routine grounder or a pop fly, they busted their butts down the line every single time. The dugouts were never dead, the players are always excited and encouraging, through good or bad.

     The energy and effort never let up. A person who was a great example of that was Taylor Schlopy, Racers left-fielder. She had several diving attempts in the two games I saw and one sticks out to me. Charlotte Morgan connected on a long fly ball and Taylor was tracking it down but ran out of room, she put all she had into trying to get that out in a tight game. She missed narrowly as the ball skipped off her glove as she toppled over the wall…yes, fell over the wall! What kind of effort and desire does it take to sacrifice oneself? When she got up and got back in the field she was upset because she felt she should have made that play. The effort and will to make the play was good enough for me and probably the other fans and her teammates, but she expected to make that play. That kind of desire gets us fans pumped up and keeps us coming back to the park.

USSSA Pride Catcher Megan Willis

     Another person that caught my attention was Megan Willis, and she wasnt even playing. I see the Pride first base coach standing there doing her job very effectively, despite having a cast on her arm. She was so into the game, pumped up the team in the dugout, when a player got a hit she was the most excited in the park. Her support of the team and enthusiasm was extraordinary. Come to find out Megan is a catcher and was out of the lineup due to a fracture in her hand. I was very impressed that she had that kind of passion and drive even when injured. That’s just not something you see in major sports, when a player is injured they rarely travel with the team, and even rarely stay so close to the team during games. It was no longer a surprise to me that Megan found a way to contribute to the team. She was nice enough to be interviewed for this blog and she explained to me that due to some other responsibilities with the coaches she was able to help out in practice and games, throwing batting practice and being a base coach. That kind of stuff just isn’t something you see in the sports world. When I asked Megan if she learned anything having a period of time where she was on the other side of the spectrum and she said “I don’t think I noticed anything new while being on the sidelines other than I knew I wanted to be out there, not being able to get out on the field everyday just makes you want it more.” That is the grandest example of being a team player and contributing to something bigger than yourself, no surprise from Megan, a two time NPF champion. Again something that solidifies this league, brings fan back, and allows for a great future.

    

*****

 

My favorite player Caitlin Lowe and myself

     The biggest asset of the NPF and what I feel is the cornerstone of the their popularity and future success, is fan-player relationship. The second game I went to I stayed to get autographs, keep in mind that the Pride have some of the biggest names, most recognizable softball figures in the game…Cat Osterman, Jess Mendoza, Cait Lowe. Despite having a line stretched out almost to centerfield every single player stayed and signed autographs and took pictures for every single person that wanted one. Not one fan left Firestone Stadium wanting a signature or picture. This takes place after every game for every team, no matter if its a 50 year old man or a 6 year old girl, every single person gets what they want! This was even the case in the last game of the season between the Racers and Diamonds, when the game was cancelled due to rain. The players could have packed it up and took off for Sulpher to win a title, but they didn’t, they came out of the locker rooms and both teams signed autographs for every fan that was there. I myself had my 2 year old niece with me and she now has an Akron Racers signed pennent on her wall and a Diamonds signed team photo. “I love the relationship I have with fans,” explains Racers pitcher Kristina Thorson, “Seeing their faces when they get to meet us and seeing how excited they are to get our autographs and talk to us is my favorite part of the day.”

After a rained out game in Akron even the visiting NPF Diamonds stayed to sign a team photo for every fan!

All players understand that the fans are the main reason they are where they are, and the driving force that is going to make the NPF grow. As great and athletic as these players are they cannot make the league grow by themselves, and they acknowledge and appreciate the fan support. Megan Willis explained how thankful she is, “Fans, we wouldn’t be here without them! Every time a fan thanks me for an autograph I respond ‘No, Thank you. Without you here we wouldn’t be here!’ And I believe that. We are a competitive league but only a 4 team league, so I think that anything we can do to make a fans experience more enjoyable we must do it.” Pride infielder Ashley Charters offers how thankful she is for the fans, “We wouldn’t be here without the fans. They are what keep us going.  They are extremely important and we love our fans.  We love it when the fans reach out to us.”

I’m not aware of any other sport you can go toand comeback with a ball signed by 5 of your heros.This ball was signed by Cait Lowe, Cat,Jess Mendoza,Danielle Lawrie,and Natasha Watley for one of my players,Rachel De Guia, who travels the country playing club softball in the summer and dreams of a career in softballThe NPF is quite a unique fan experience,one that motivates thousands of young girls to push toward their dreams

      Each and everyone of us have had people we look up to and meeting them would be the greatest thing ever. I know I have and still do experience that, the NPF players get it, and cherish it. Diamond 3rd baseman Loryn Johnson captures that exact essence when asked about the fans, “Without their support we wouldn’t have jobs, and it’s because of them I get to continue to play the sport I love. One smile, signature or hi-five has the ability to make a young girls day-and that’s such a rewarding feeling.” There is no doubt that it is genuine as well, as someone who has been to games I felt it, fans across the country feel the appreciation from them and it is expressed every time a player gets the chance. “Fans are everything! Without our fanbase, our league would not succeed like it has.”, explains Alisa Goler, “Personally, I LOVE our fans! I cannot get enough of them. It makes me so happy to see what great people we have supporting us in Chicago, as well as across the country.”

     Another fan who the NPF has left a good impression on is Jeancarlo Rosa, “Dedication and Determination to me are the biggest values they preserve in this league to see how much work and effort these girls put towards training and practice is incredible. These girls eat, sleep, and breath NPF and that makes it that much more exciting to watch.” Jeancarlo told me that he had a rather memorable experience that seems small but left a huge impression. While watching the NPFCS Jeancarlo got called out on an EMS call and after asking for some updates on Twitter, Racers’ Meghan Bush did more than enough to keep him updated. Those kind of selfless acts by all NPF players are the things that stick in peoples mind and will continue building a great fanbase, there’s not one person who doesn’t appreciate a league that is so interactive.

*****

     Something that I asked most of the ladies about was the sacrifice that I perceived most, if not all, of them make to play in the NPF. The reason I thought that was simple. They are all highly educated, they easily could have a more financially rewarding career. One that isn’t seasonal, and more secure. The yearly salary for all teams is an equal $150,000, (A-Rod gets roughly $185k a game) that’s an average of about 7k per player per year, some more, some less. Rookies certainly aren’t that blessed pulling in $4-5k a year. The impressions I got back from the ladies were that they were very content and it isn’t about money. Andrea Duran, who does everything from coach to model was very blunt about how she feels, when asked if shes sacrificing anything, “Not at all, I love playing in the NPF and at this point in my life that is all I want to do.” This summer the NBA and the NFL were locked-out fighting over money, and NPF fans had the privilege to see someone play a sport for genuine love of the game. Even though everything I’ve said may be true, and their decision to play in the NPF is a sacrifuce of sorts, every lady is more than happy to make it. As opposed to viewing it as a sacrifice they view it as a necessity and a responsibility. A responsibility to future NPF players and the young softball players of this country. “I feel blessed to have the opportunity to continue to play the sport I love.” says Loryn Johnson, “Not many female athletes get to continue play after their 4 years of collegiate ball, so for now my decision to continue to play is an easy one!”

     Some told me that they did pass up on big jobs or opportunities and Megan Willis even briefly told me about a decision that led to a confirmation of her purpose in playing in the NPF. “After my Rookie year I thought I was going to hang em up. I thought I need a ‘real’ job. I think it really just depends on the person, we play four years of softball in college and then jump right into the NPF. Sometimes we need a break, sometimes we are all in and know that softball is where we are supposed to be. I can only speak for myself, but by taking that year off I was able to realize where my passion was and it was still softball. I think that all of us NPF’ers have many reasons for playing, but I think that we can all honestly say that we ultimately are playing so that hopefully one day women can make a career out of playing softball.”

*****

     A real disadvantage, but one that again coincides with the common theme of the NPF of doing something for the greatest good of the league, is the lack of home field for the NPF Diamonds. The Pride have a similar situation but it isn’t quite as full time as the Diamonds. They didn’t have a home field, they played at a different location almost every single series. This was a decision made in order to benefit the league with the purpose of reaching more fans with a traveling team. I am grateful to be able to speak with Diamond third baseman Loryn Johnson about this in order for myself and everyone else to get a better idea.

Bandits Catcher Rachel Folden, Owner Bill Sokolisand former Bandits Pitcher Jennie Finch dig inat RosemontStadium groundbreaking.Photo by Dina Kwit

      Even though the circumstances could be viewed as a disadvantage the Diamonds never used it as an excuse. They still hit the field every single weekend and gave it their all and never were they worried about themselves, it was always in the best interest of the growth and future of the NPF. Loryn described the biggest disadvantage as the constant travel. While some teams could possibly spend weeks at a time in their hometown, the Diamonds traveled from city to city. They were based in Orlando and if there was any down time they could head back there for some rest but it wasn’t very frequent. If any of us traveled this much we could understand that it does take a toll on a person. It doesn’t allow us to rest properly, there’s no chance of getting in a true comfort zone, and also workouts and meals aren’t what they could be. Eating on the run and not being able to eat well prepared meals isn’t exactly ideal. Yet through it all Loryn and the rest of the Diamonds knew it was worth it, “The traveling was tough, but at the end of the day, we as a team knew we were reaching so many more people by being at various locations every weekend.” When I asked Loryn what location was her favorite she described North Carolina and the Southern atmosphere, “Our trip to NC was my favorite place of the summer. The southern hospitality and community there made it a trip to remember. We were able to impact a lot of young women’s lives that weekend and it made it clear to us that what we were doing as a team was worth it.”

*****

     These types of issues aren’t something the Racers and the Bandits have to deal with to the same extent, both teams have a hometown with a home field. The Racers play at Firestone Stadium, a historic field which was built in 1925 and donated to the city of Akron in 1988. Micaela Minner tells me that The Sultan of Swat Babe Ruth played in the stadium so that adds to the mystique of the cozy stadium. The Bandits just finished their first season at Rosemont Stadium, a $6 million softball specific facility. Monica Abbott touches on the importance of the field in her interview, “Rosemont Stadium is ground breaking for women’s sports. Did you know its the first stadium ever built specifically for a professional women’s team? This gives us a huge advantage to be able to build the brand and a home with fans and an area. We’re spreading and building a ‘Bandit Nation’.” After hearing from a couple of Bandit players the common denominator was Bill Sokolis, the owner of the Bandits. Players gave him so much credit and were so thankful for everything he has done for them. “I would like to give a special shout out to our owner, Bill Sokolis.” Bandit 3rd baseman Alisa Goler adds, “He is one of the best men I have met, and I am lucky to have such a strong relationship with him…thanks for everything Bill” From the sounds of things the Bandits are in great hands and the league is heading in the right direction by having people like Mr. Sokolis involved.

Home of the 2011 NPF Champion Chicago Bandits, Rosemont Stadium

     You know a team and their fans are doing something right when players from other teams enjoy playing there, like Andrea Duran of the Pride explains. “I love when I can play in a stadium that has a lot of energy whether they are cheering for my team or against it! The Chicago Bandits have really built their fan base in Rosemont and it is really great to play there because their fans are so dedicated.” Pride centerfielder Caitlin Lowe adds “Hopefully we can build more home stadiums like the one the Bandits were able to open up in Rosemont. They as well as the Racers are rallied around  by a great community of fans.”

*****

USSSA Pride’s 1-2 punch on the mound, DanielleLawrie and Cat Osterman.Danielle pitched 79.2 innings for a9-3 record and 1.85 ERA. Cat finished the season at 14-2 with a .94 ERA in 97 innings pitched. Cat has a 5.6:1 k/bb ratio.

     The Bandits have something that stirs up a lot of excitement in softball of any age, pitching. They feature possibly the best pitcher of all time in Monica Abbott. They have had, in my opinion, the most recognizable name in softball history, Jennie Finch, until this year. Pitching is a big draw in baseball and softball, and the NPF has plenty of it! The league has well established pitchers Abbott, Cat Osterman, Danielle Lawrie, Lisa Norris, Kristina Thorson and some young upcoming pitchers Jordan Taylor, Kelsi Dunne and Toni Paisley. Can you imagine how much excitement would be in a ballpark where Monica Abbott and Cat Osterman are squaring off?

In my first game ever this summer, I had the privilege of seeing Osterman pitch against Thorson and it was a battle! Thorson got the 2-1 win giving up only 3 hits. It was such a powerful performance by both ladies! Thorson, who I jokingly compare to Rick ‘Wild Thing’ Vaughn due to her piercings, makeup, and dominate pitching, is one half of very possibly the best pitching duo in the NPF, along with Lisa Norris. Thorson wrapped up a stellar collegiate career at Cal 54th all-time in D1 with 102 wins and 53th all-time with 1072 strikeouts. She had no intentions of letting up in the NPF either compiling 52 wins in the last 5 season along with 500+ innings and a 3:1 strikeout to walk ratio. To the best of my knowledge, from the numbers I’ve seen, that is the most wins in the last 5 years by any pitcher. Wild Thing is very humble about all her accomplishments and gives young ladies a glimpse of what it takes to make it to this level when I talked to her, “I really just take it game by game, inning by inning, hitter by hitter. I think I’ve been able to stay successful for so long because of my off season workouts and the great catchers I’ve had the pleasure of throwing to. During the entire off season, I lift hard from September until I leave for season, and I have great trainers and coaches to help me put together the best program for me. My catchers and I, especially Sam Marder, have a great relationship and we talk about hitters and how we want to approach them every game and inning. I also have 2 pitching coaches that I go to throughout the off season to help make sure my mechanics and movements are on track.”

     Kristina’s partner-in-crime, Lisa Norris, has an equally outstanding resume with 34 wins in 3 season with 349 innings pitched. Lisa was the 2010 NPF Pitcher of the Year compiling 124 strikeouts on her way to a 14-5 record and 1.72 ERA. She expresses how that achievement felt, “The best moment in my NPF career would be being named 2010 NPF Pitcher of the Year. It is such a great honor to receive such an award especially playing against the best of the best pitchers in the USA.” Not only has Lisa accomplished some extended success, but she also has some very impressive feats that are virtually unheard of! In Lisa’s first ever NPF start she threw a perfect game! That has never even came close to happening in baseball and as far as I know never happened in professional softball either. Cat Osterman’s first start was very impressive as well going 12 innings with 24 strikeouts, but not a perfect game. This passed season Lisa also threw two no-hitters, July 22 and August 12. Just to draw a baseball parallel to illustrate how special that is, only 5 times has a pitcher threw multiple no-no’s in one season. Nolan Ryan and Roy Halladay are on that impressive list, and you have to go all the way back to June 11 and 15 1938 that someone has thrown no-hitters closer to each other than Lisa. I’m personally so impressed with the focus that would be required to do that, to her it’s just how she plays. “Everytime I step out on the mound I expect to win. You always expect the perfect game but once it’s broken you go for the no-hitter, if that gets broken up then you expect a shutout.” Setting such high standards may seem unrealistic to some, but with Lisa’s track record it is always a possibility and she gets great results expecting so much of herself.

     I asked both ladies how it felt to be pitching alongside another dynamic pitcher and their answers were so similar! “I love being part of pitching duos. Lisa and I compliment each other very well. We are each others biggest fans, and we help coach each other.” Explains Kristina “Our pitching styles are different, which compliments each other. It’s very fun to be a part of this duo, I’m looking forward to pitching with her again next year.” When I asked Lisa the same question she simply responded, “I absolutely love it! Thorson is an outstanding pitcher and we are so different in pitching style that I believe it’s what makes us such a great pitching combo.” I look forward to making many trips to Akron to see these ladies pitch as well! As for the relationship between Kristina and former Buckeye catcher Sam Marder, follow them both on twitter and you’ll see there isn’t any doubt how close they are. They hold a day long conversation on Twitter sometimes, there’s very little question about how close they are. Which looks to be such an advantage.

*****

     Something that I encounter, and something I know the players encounter outside of their female fans and family circle, is lack of respect for the game of softball. The part that I’m most confused about is you have thousands of men playing slow pitch softball almost all year round, and a lot that live out their failed baseball ambitions through slow pitch softball, but when it comes to women playing its not that relevant. That just makes no sense to me. I’m a huge sports fan of all sports and when I tell someone I went to a softball game or I like watching these ladies play the most common response I get is a laugh or something of the sort. Well as a guy who watches all levels of football and basketball and my fair share of Major League Baseball, I can say with 100% confidence there is no sport that is played with so much passion and love for the game itself. All major league organizations are led by greedy money-hungry diva’s, this is absolutely not the case with the NPF, they sacrifice and ignore they’re girly side and instincts and leave it all out on the field!

USSSA Pride Outfielder Jessica Mendoza, is awonderful ambassador for the NPF and softball.Jessica has been around softball for awhileand gets alot of credit for it’s progress. Jessica is a fixute in the broadcast booth for the College World Series every year, and has also moved intodoing MLB and college football.

     I asked every single player I interviewed how they felt about this kind of situation and none of them minded, they are still going to do what they do regardless, the approval of disbelievers aren’t that important to them although they will gladly persuade them if given the chance. “I’d tell them to step in the box against Monica Abbott or Cat Osterman and try to hit…and then come talk to me.” Says Alisa Goler, “I understand that most female sports are considered secondary to men’s although I do not agree. What I have learned is that once people come to a game, they usually are so impressed that they end up coming back for more. My goal would be to have those individuals see just what we do, and then see if they still show a lack of respect for our sport.” That is the path I took, I’d be lying if I said I always respected softball because I’m sure I haven’t, there was a time I was your stereotypical stoic alpha male, I’m glad I got over that! Interestingly Monica had a similar response and welcomes the challenge as well, “Would you like to come spend a day with us tomorrow, so you can really tell? Better yet here, please take this ball, glove, and cleats and throw it underhand at 70+ mph over a span of approximately 100 pitches. Or you can try to stand in and hit if you want?” Monica also gave a very real twist on it to anyone who has a daughter, “I would say thank you. Do you have a daughter? I hope that one day she gets the opportunity to play sports at a level somewhat equal to MLB, NHL, or the NBA.” All players simply suggested anyone with doubt to come on out to the park and catch a game and see if their opinions may change. “I would say that we are the top athletes in our sport and we work just as hard as the professional men out there.” says Andrea Duran,  “We play from our heart and for the love of the game.”

*****

     It seems that everything the NPF and it’s players do is for the future, and that assumption is absolutely correct! The NPF is running a ’20 for 2020′ campaign which is designed to secure the future of professional softball. Fans can donate to this cause, which is intended to help secure TV airtime for the NPF during some for their biggest events. These events include the NPF Championship Series, which was televised on ESPN and the Back to School Tour.  The Back to School Tour kicks of September 30 in Memphis and concludes November 5 in Cali. The tour takes a team of NPF players around the country to play college teams, gaining so much exposure for the NPF. The tour is in it’s second year and is sponsered by USSSA and Major League Baseball. Information on both promotions can be found on the NPF website http://www.profastpitch.com/  along with a complete schedule of the Back to School Tour.

     Pride catcher, and former Longhorn, Megan Willis speaks about these investments the NPF are making to expand the sport. “I would love to see this league expand! That is our goal every year! I feel that we are moving in the right direction with the Back to School Tour we did last year. Taking our players to NEW places all over the country to expand people’s knowledge of the game and of the NPF. We played in new territories this summer as well in hopes of showcasing our ‘product’ to potential owners and supporters. We will be doing the Back to School Tour again this fall and we have added some new universities that have a major softball following. I can only be optimistic in thinking that we have no where to go but up and our goal is 20 teams by 2020!”

The future of the NPF and softball has changed alot with the tragic removal of softball from the Olympics. It’s a double-edged sword of sorts. The removal of softball definitely changes the landscape of softball as a whole but it has solidified the NPF and gotten a bigger commitment from the players. There is no doubt the NPF has taken full responsibility for the future of softball now and have done a great job thus far. As part of this blog I have interviewed three players who played in the summer Olympics in 2008, where they earned a silver medal. After four years of Olympic participation, including 3 golds, softball was voted to be removed from the 2012 games, then also voted to remain unavailable in the 2016 games. The news was very unpleasant to all softball players with visions of playing for their country someday, also to those who have already had the experience.

Caitlin Lowe sliding around the tag in the2008 Beijing Olympi

     Caitlin Lowe, a 4-time HS All-American, 4-time college All-American, 2008 Silver Medalist and 2010 NPF champion, explains her Olympic experience and how she felt hearing the news. “Playing in the Olympics was one of the greatest times of my life. I never realized the types of emotions I would feel being in the venue in Beijing. I’ve never felt such a sense of honor and respect to wear the colors and USA across my chest. Even though it didn’t end the way we wanted, I will never forget the impact being there had on me as a player and person. I think that we all feel as if we were punched straight in the gut. I didn’t even know that it was a possibility! So for me, I was in shock for a very long time. Living in the US we consistently see softball grow in popularity. So it’s hard to believe that anyone would want to eliminate us. I hope one day we can get back into the games because I believe all sports deserve to be included.”

    “There has been nothing like it in my life so far! It was the greatest experiences I have ever took part of. I am so honored to have worn those three letters across my chest and to have played for my country! I will never forget opening ceremonies that is when it hit me wow I am an Olympian! Our whole delegation started chanting U-S-A U-S-A before we walked out it gives me chills just thinking about that moment!”, Andrea Duran recalls her Olympic experience, “I am saddened that softball has been removed from the Olympics I think it is one of the best team female sports played. I just hope that one day it can return and hopefully we as players can get it back on the ticket in the future.”

     As a result of softball being removed from the Olympics the NPF has seen a boost. All the ladies that I spoke to identify the NPF as the future of softball. There are still Team USA events and tournaments but with all due respect it isn’t quite the same without the possibility of the Olympics. The NPF is getting more talent that has spent past summers with Team USA. Pride infielder Ashley Charters, who was third in the league hitting .354, was one player who made the switch. “I played with Team USA for the past couple summers and then decided to give the the Pro league a try. The future of softball in the US is in the NPF. If we want the game of softball to progress then we need more teams, more fans and basically more support.  It was a very hard decision to leave Team USA but I think that the league is where the future is and I wanted to help grow our sport.  Even though we may not see results immediately, they will pay off in the near future. I am convinced.”

Andrea Duran, Team USA

     All-NPF 3rd baseman Andrea Duran also made the tough decision to transition to the NPF. “It was probably one of the hardest decisions I have ever had to make. I love playing USA and I am so honored to have been able to wear the red, white, and blue when I did. I also grateful and indebted to everything USA softball has done for me throughout my career. Ultimately I chose to play solely NPF this summer in order to help grow the league so that in the future hopefully it will grow into something great. It was for the betterment of softball. If there was a way to give my time fully to both USA and the NPF I would but right now it is just not possible.”

     There are also many other players that have committed their time full-time to the NPF. There are several players who have in the past devoted time to both organizations and even took time off from the NPF in order to participate with Team USA. Although it is something that some players choose to do it isn’t nearly as common. 2008 Silver Medalist Caitlin Lowe is one player who chose to devote herself to the NPF. “It was extremely difficult to choose the NPF over USA Softball. USA Softball has been my life since I first joined the Jr. National Team in High School. I realized that I had a responsibility to help build something for young girls dreaming to make softball a career. USA Softball will always be there for those lucky 18 girls who make the team. However, there are so many talented players that must hang up their cleats after college because they didn’t make Team USA. My dream is that every single girl who wants to play can continue their career beyond college.” Without the NPF only a select few players get to continue their softball career, with the NPF that number of players that continue beyond college greatly increases. The common theme I’ve heard from all these ladies is evolving the sport, it’s a very selfless view even though most of these decisions effect everyone individually.

     The future of the NPF is a concern of every single player in the league, which is a reason why I believe the future is bright. When so many people share a common goal the progess is magnified and strengthened. When I asked about the future of the NPF I got a variety of answers, some suggestions, visions and motivating statements for expansion. Some players took a person approach holding theirselves accountable for growth, such as Alisa Goler, “As a current player, we each can do our part to use social media as a tool to help get the word out about the NPF.” Considering that I arranged all communications with the ladies through Twitter I’d say most of them are doing a great job of that. Fellow teammate Megan Wiggins shares a similar enthusiastic responsibility, “I see the league progressing to a more well-known league and a growing league with more teams, outlets, and sponsors. I will do whatever it takes for the league to grow and advance in any way possible.”

     Exposure and sponsorship is also an area that is necessary for expansion in the NPF, as some players touched on. “Progession is endless. It is a matter of awareness, money, and support.” says Micaela Minner, “The movement I would like to see would consist of gaining more conglomerate supports who believe in the players, the league, and the positive impact it can have on female athletes around the country.” Lisa Norris shared with me an idea that seems like it would be a surefire way of gaining exposure, “I think that we need to play where the kids play such as in the Colorado tournament, and Nationals. The kids are the future and they need to see it to believe that they can keep playing softball after college.”

     Another angle for progress that was communicated to me was to continue take the current support of the MLB and use them as a growth model. “I envision the future of the NPF to be a similar model to the MLB. Hopefully we can expand the league to different areas and create more teams.” Caitlin Lowe explains, “There isn’t a shortage of amazing players to fill roster spots. I hope that we can make it a feasible option for EVERY woman in this league to choose softball as a career.” Ashley Charters adds her vision, “It would be ideal and a dream to one day have as many teams as there are baseball teams. If each Major league team could own just one Softball team then we would be set. We have no problem playing on baseball fields, the facilities are there they just need the girls! One of these days our sport is going to take off and we will still give back to each community.” Thats a very realistic view, the WNBA and NBA teamed for a similar approach and that really helped the WNBA set a foundation. Even though not all teams survived it was still a huge boost and a confidence builder. “I see the NPF equivalent to a successful Triple A baseball team in the future.” adds Monica Abbott, “Of course though if were gonna throw out the word dream, my real dream is Softball to be an equal to how we see MLB today, including our television contract with the NPF Network”

     None of these visions are out of reach, and if I had to give my opinion right now as to where I see the league going…I would say it’s going to be something special very soon! I see the passion the players have to succeed and to have the NPF be very successful. I’ve said it before but I will say it again, the unity these players have and the determination they have working toward a common goal is phenominal and I don’t think failure is an option for these ladies. “I would like to see more teams, having an east and west coast division. I want each team in the league to have the type of following that the Racers and the Bandits have.” says Kristina Thorson, “I think that the league also needs to start marketing to the average sports fan, men 20-50, and implement deals and promotions to get this group of fans to come to our games.”

*******

     I’m going to wrap this blog up by being very honest with what I’ve seen and what I know and some wise words from the players. This is a league that is based off of high character women, many that are sacrificing something one way or another but are too noble and humble to view it as a sacrifice. The league is built on pride, of who they are and what they as individuals what to become. The integrity is overwhelming, and the level of competitive drive along with respect and sportsmanship make the league well-rounded and upstanding. These women are all college educated, you will not see a girl skip straight from high school to the Chicago Bandits. There aren’t any women using college as a stepping stone to the NPF, knowing very well they’re only going to play one year of college. These aren’t the type of athletes who you are going to be worried that they are going to hold out for extra money. They wouldn’t even consider hurting their team like that or giving a single day up of playing the game they love dearly! Us as fans will surely never have to endure a lockout or strike from the NPF because they ladies aren’t happy with the rules or the money they are making, they are too happy and grateful that they are blessed enough with the ability and the chance to play a game they love for a living. More accurately a partial living, they dont make enough to go to Disney World when their season is over, or vacation for the whole off-season. Megan Wiggins and Alisa Goler both told me they are back in school as of right now to further their education, and I’m sure they’re not the only ones, best of luck to them! You’re not going to see a player go promote themselves in the off-season or film movies or reality show, you will however see most players continue playing overseas or continue perfecting their craft while running skills camps or clinics. These ladies have to work in the offseason! Many coach college softball in the offseason, which being a girls high school basketball coach, I admire that. You won’t see any NPF players getting in trouble, they have worked too hard to get where they are and they arent willing to lose it, theres no way they will take any of what they have for granted.

“I think the main thing is trying to never be satisfied. I learned the most about the game throughout college, on the olympic team, and playing in the NPF. I am still learning every single day from my teammates, coaches, and opponents.”

“In the NPF we hold ourselves

to a different standard. We know

 that we are looked up to as role models

 both on and off the field.

I think that we play with a passion

 that is hard to find in many other professional sports.

We also take this passion

off the field when we host clinics

 and promote our league.”

 – Caitlin Lowe

“I love it! Please fans wear the jerseys, t-shirts, bracelets, hats everything! I hope it’s your favorite t-shirt for that matter. There is nothing more exciting to see than fans getting wound up at a game and sharing that same passion for the game that we have… it’s incredible!”

photo by Dina Kwit

“I love this game!

 It continues to challenge me

 day in and day out.

 There is a weird battle

going on inside of me

 with my inner 10 year old

 and 16 year old self

trying to be good at this game.

 I love it.”

– Monica Abbott

“You create your own destiny,

 don’t judge a book by it’s cover.

 Be proud of who you are,

 what you stand for,

 and what you’ve accomplished.”

 – Kristina Thorson

“I think one reason we (Alisa Goler)

were so successful is because

we had the same mentality we

had in college which is fear nothing,

 and be hard-nosed and sharp.

 Having the right mentality always

 leads to great successes.”

 – Megan Wiggins

     “You always want to be on top, always want to be number one. You can’t teach someone to want to work, or want to win. I think that every girl that is in this league knows what it takes to win.”

“On paper one wouldn’t think we have progressed, because we were up to as many as 7 teams and now there are 4. However, its quite the opposite. Even though there are only 4 teams I am positive that these 4 teams will set the standard. We have been able to weed out the people who weren’t in it for the long haul and start making changes so that we have a great ‘product’ to showcase. So when a potential owner comes and sees what we are all about we have a professional model for him/her to follow!” – Megan Willis

     “The foundation of the NPF is the relationship between the players, coaches, and owners to work together with the league as one identity. Unity will be the best way to really help our sport grow on a national level and allow collegiate players to have a higher level of competitive play to look foward to.” – Micaela Minner

     “I would just stress that all of the athletes who compete in the NPF came from college, which means they had the grades to get into school. It’s so important that kids do well in school. Also, never let anyone tell you things can’t be done. People would have laughed in my face when I was younger if I told them I would be playing ball professionally one day. I am so blessed to have been a Chicago Bandit this summer. My teammates aren’t just girls I played with all summer, they’re my family now.”

“I learned that some days are pitchers’ days, and some are hitters. It doesn’t matter how many times you face a pitcher, there will be times that you do not get a hit off of them…it’s just a part of the game.” – Alisa Goler

“That’s one of my favorite things about the NPF-

the relationships that are built.

 My rookie season I roomed with two athletes

 from Texas A&M University.

 As a Texas Longhorn myself,

 I was conditioned to hate them!

 College rivals to teammates and roommates,

 I am now proud to call those two Aggies

 great friends of mine.”

“Being role models and giving young girls hope

 that they can dream to be a pro softball player

is what we are all about.”

 – Loryn Johnson

“I love playing in the NPF and at this point in my life that is all I want to do.”

– Andrea Duran

My 2 year old niece Mackenzie after her first game, a rain out between theRacers and Diamonds. She still took this Racers signed pennant home! I willalways remember it because she peed all over me while waiting in line forthe Diamonds autographs, good times at the ballpark no matter the situation 🙂

SPECIAL THANKS TO:

Monica Abbott

Tennessee Volunteer and current Chicago Bandits Pitcher

photo by Dina Kwit

*

Alisa Goler

Georgia Bulldog and current Chicago Bandit 3rd Baseman

@agoler35

*

Megan Wiggins

Georgia Bulldog and current Chicago Bandit Outfielder

@TwitrlesWiggins

photo by Dina Kwit

*

Kristina Thorson

Cal Golden Bear and current Akron Racers Pitcher

*

Lisa Norris

North Carolina Tar Heel and current Akron Racers Pitcher

@Lgnorris11

*

Micaela Minner

Missouri Tiger and current Akron Racer Utility player

*

Loryn Johnson

Texas Longhorn and current NPF Diamond 3rd Baseman

@LorynJ17

*

Megan Willis

Texas Longhorn and current USSSA Pride Catcher

*

Ashley Charters

Washington Huskie and current USSSA Pride 2nd Baseman

*

Andrea Duran

UCLA Bruin and current USSSA Pride 3rd Baseman

@AndreaDuran28

*

Caitlin Lowe

Arizona Wildcat and current USSSA Pride Centerfielder

@CaitlinLowe

*****

Special shoutout to my blog partner and best friend Andy Cook, who also edited my horrible grammar. Congrats on his recent wedding!Also special thanks to Andrew O. Phillips in the Bandits front office, he’s a super cool dude and he was in contact from the start. Thanks for all your support and publishing the article in many outlets, including the Bandits website.

other websites used: http://www.google.com, http://www.wikipedia.com



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